Broadway interview

Schele Williams on directing ‘The Notebook,’ ‘The Wiz’—and making Broadway history

The Daily Beast

February 26, 2024

Schele Williams on making her Broadway directorial debut—and history—with “The Notebook” and “The Wiz,” her mom’s experience of Alzheimer’s, racism, and crafting diverse theater.

At the end of the dress rehearsal of the Broadway production of The Notebook (Schoenfeld Theatre, booking to July 3), the director Schele Williams was confronted with the sight of six girls crying their eyes out. “Mrs. Kleinberger, you didn’t say it was going to be so sad,” one of the girls said, amid the collective weeping.

Her daughters Sayla and Sasha had brought some friends to attend the show, which Williams is co-directing with her longtime friend Michael Greif. To them Williams is “Mrs. Kleinberger”—her married surname. “It was fun and confusing and hilarious,” Williams said. “I’m in my world on 45th Street where every person knows me as the director ‘Schele Williams’—except this group of six girls. It was so cute.”

The girls should also know that Mrs. Kleinberger is making history—The Notebook marks Williams’ debut as a director on Broadway; it is also over 50 years since Vinnette Carroll made history as the first Black woman to direct a musical on Broadway; Williams is the first Black woman to direct a Broadway musical since then. (In 2021, Camille A. Brown became the first Black woman in 65 years to direct and choreograph a Broadway show, the “choreopoem” for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.) It was recently announced that Williams will be honored with the Founders Award for Excellence in Directing, for her “incredible contributions to the field” at the 90th Annual Drama League Awards on May 17.

After the first performance of The Notebook, Kevin McCollum, one of the producers, toasted the occasion with champagne with the 200-strong team. “It hit me how profound it is to still have firsts at almost 53 years old,” Williams said, “and how much it means to me say to my daughters, ‘Never stop dreaming. Your life is only over when you call it quits.’”

Williams (her first name is pronounced “Shelley”) was speaking from Los Angeles, where she had taken a quick trip to oversee the opening of the second show she is directing this spring—The Wiz, prior to its Broadway run (Marquis Theatre, booking March 29 to Aug. 18). The Notebook and The Wiz are “massively different,” Williams said, representing two “very different” parts of her life. The trip west was a dash, she had missed having supper with her family, but her “wonderfully supportive” husband Scott Kleinberger had chivvied her to get to the airport on time, and relish the LA opening of The Wiz—the reimagining of The Wizard of Oz with an all-Black cast led by Wayne Brady in the title role—which premiered on Broadway in 1974.

The Notebook, based on Nicholas Sparks’ novel which was adapted into a legendary 2004 big-screen tearjerker starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, follows the story of couple Noah and Allie (the latter with Alzheimer’s, struggling to piece memories of their life together).

The Broadway production is “deeply personal” to Williams. “From the moment I read it, it really hit me. My mom has Alzheimer’s, so navigating this show is tough—really hard—because I am living it in so many ways, especially as I watch my father deal with it all. It is an incredibly difficult and important story to tell. The story means so much to me. I am incredibly biased, but I believe it’s been done with such care, beauty, and grace. I am honored to be part of it. Ingrid (Michaelson, who has written the music and lyrics) and Bekah (Brunstetter, who wrote the book) have crafted what I really believe is a masterpiece.

“I was incredibly critical when I was reading it because it was so deeply personal. It doesn’t go for anything that feels intentionally manipulative in a hokey way, it goes so far away from that. It leans into truth and connection and is funny, and feels so much like life. All of us on the team have been touched by Alzheimer’s in some way, so we are all approaching it with care. Our stories both overlap and are different.”

It has many fans, but its critics say the film was hokey. “The Broadway interpretation has to be different,” Williams said. “It’s such a different medium. What is amazing about theater in general is we cannot control where you look and what you connect to. In theater you have the autonomy to take in whatever part of the picture you want. Our responsibility is to gently nudge you where you want to look.”

To that end, Williams said the production shows Allie and Noah at three poignant times of their lives, and moments within each intersect with the others, so there are moments where the older versions of their characters observe the younger. “You really have the option of navigating the story with the couple you connect with most,” said Williams. “The show is a joy to listen to every night because it is filled with so much hope for humanity.”

Williams’ mom, LaDon, is 72, and she and the family have been dealing with the progression of her Alzheimer’s for around eight years. “It’s rough,” Williams said. “It’s a one-way street, right? The doctors say the way it starts is the way it progresses. It’s slow going for her. But we’ve hit a couple of tricky stages. It’s tough, and it’s incredibly tough for dad dealing with it daily and my wise, kind, amazing sister Anji, who’s on the ground in Ohio, where my parents live and where I grew up. But it’s also tough for the grandchildren. They’re navigating this at ages where they don’t necessarily have the vocabulary. I’m much older, and it’s really hard for me. We’re dealing with it as best as we possibly can because she’s still my mom.”

The past seems clearer for Williams’ mom than the present, and so sometimes she will tell Williams stories about “her daughter Schele” without realizing she is talking to Williams about her. “But I know the memories are in there. Part of the Alzheimer’s journey is learning their language, and the world they want to be in is the world we need to be in—not to bring her into our version of reality, but for us to get into their version of reality, and make that OK. If she calls me the name of her sister that’s OK, I know she loves her too. I feel, ‘You’re giving me the name of someone you love, and I’m happy to be the recipient of that love. Who cares what you call me? I see love in your eyes, that’s all that matters.’”

Music is proving to be a vital anchor. Williams’ father, James “Diamond” Williams, is a professional musician, the drummer for funk band the Ohio Players. “Music is a huge part of our lives and always has been. My dad has always liked going for rides in the car every day. That’s their thing—even when I was a kid. Today, they still do that, and listen to the ‘70s music channel. She sings all the songs—that’s when she’s the happiest.”

Williams’ mother saw The Notebook in Chicago, and will travel to New York with the rest of the family for its Broadway opening—and a decision will be taken on the day about whether she is well enough to attend the show.

Her mother’s illness has meant Williams has gotten “really serious” about her health: “I don’t take anything for granted.” She has not yet checked to see if she is predisposed to Alzheimer’s. “I don’t know if I will, I don’t know if I want to know. In a way you never know what’s going to happen. What you can control is the beauty and people you’re around every day, and the good you’re putting into the world, and the legacy you will leave behind. When all your dreams start coming true…” Williams paused, her voice cracking and tears beginning… “It’s something you can just never prepare for. It’s the greatest, most wonderful feeling—even though it’s so tough that my mom cannot experience it with me.”

Williams cried a little. “My mom took me to the theater and dance classes when I was little… and on my big night… you know, she may not remember it or be there. It’s tough. She was a dancer growing up. She planted all of the love of this art in my life. This is a year I could never have imagined—all the sadness and joy, which are words in a song in The Notebook.”


‘Racism is everywhere. We must acknowledge that’

“It’s so complicated,” Williams said of her pride in making her Broadway directorial debut alongside being the first Black woman to direct a Broadway musical in such a long time. “First, I feel very honored. Second, I cannot believe it’s taken this long, especially when there have been so many shows with Black women as leads. It isn’t like we haven’t been telling Black women’s stories, we have been telling them on stage, but without having the dignity of representation of a Black woman helping to craft the narrative of a Black story.

“It really does mean a lot to me, because I spent many years as an actor—as I say I’ve only ever played Black women on stage!—and I didn’t get to have those conversations. That’s the reason I became a director. There were moments when I would bump up against it, where I would want to say, ‘I don’t want to say that, do that, move my body this way,’ and yet I would have a sea of men telling me how to talk, stand, dance, and what to feel.

“There was no daylight to say, ‘Can we chat about this, because this does not feel authentic?’ I did not have the power to do that. I was not empowered in the space to say anything. No one ever went, ‘Hey, you’re a Black woman here doing all this, how do you feel?’ Now those conversations are actively happening thank God, and there is more space.”

When Williams became a director, “it was really important that I was constantly thinking about the things and conversations I wished I had had, the dignity I wished I had had.”

Williams, a co-founder of the advocacy and campaigning group Black Theatre United, declined to detail specific incidents from the past, as she doesn’t want to “impugn any particular person, because I don’t think anyone did anything out of malice. I think everyone was really coming to it with the best of intentions. But the execution meant these weren’t the best representations of Blackness on stage, and there is a cost to that.

“For me, there is an awesome responsibility that we have as storytellers, the impact of stories and characters we put on stage, and how audiences walk away with the version of humanity we put forth. If we continue to lean into certain tropes and versions of Blackness over and over again, and audiences continue to see that, how does that translate when they are walking to their cars, and they see a Black person across the street? If we continue to show Black bodies in certain ways, if we continue to show Black women as easy and promiscuous, if we continue to dehumanize Blackness on stage, are we somehow contributing to the damage that is happening on our streets? We are now having these conversations we can be part of the course correction as we tell these stories.”

Williams hopes the diverse casting of The Notebook means a diverse audience connects to the material in an embracing and inclusive way. She is particularly excited about that as the mother of 12- and 13-year-old daughters. “I know there are things I can put on stage that can shift the narrative about how the world sees them.”

As someone who has worked within it for so long, does Williams think Broadway is racist, was racist, and is it evolving since the conversations and activism that germinated after the murder of George Floyd?

“I think rather than saying Broadway is racist, I would say racism permeates every bit of our culture,” Williams said. “Racism is everywhere, right? We must acknowledge that, and really take responsibility, and say at every turn: Are we checking our implicit biases? Are we sure the stories we intend to tell are the stories we are actually telling? Are we sure we are reflecting different ages, genders, and races? Are we really creating behind the table the humanity that we really want to reflect on the other side of the footlights? And if aren’t doing that, are we just reinforcing the biases of the few again and again and again?”

Williams is glad all of this is finally being said “out loud. Part of creating any kind of cure and remedy is first admitting there is a problem and then saying, ‘OK, now we acknowledge we have blind spots and problems. Are we creating structures and habits that allow us to create goals we say out loud so we have accountability, and then structures to catch ourselves?’ Left to our own devices we will default into what was. Are we creating habits that change the way we have always done business, even if it makes us uncomfortable for a period of time? Are our habits shifting so we are closer to what we want to be?”

Of what stage the process has reached, Williams said: “It has taken a hundred years to have this conversation. It will not be fixed in the next 5 or 10 years, but we should be on our journey. And every time we miss we need to acknowledge it was a fail, but when we get back up we try again. We give ourselves the grace to fail, and allow humanity to grow.”

Williams remains optimistic. “If I wasn’t encouraged I wouldn’t be in it. I have skin in the game, so it matters to me to continue the work. I am in this to fix it together.”


‘It was a glamorous life. It was bananas’

Williams’ mother and father met in high school, aged 15 and 16 respectively. “My dad was the drum major, and my mom was the drum majorette. When I was in high school, some of their teachers were mine. My parents, because they were high school sweethearts, their brothers and sisters were friends, so my family is incredibly close. It’s beautiful. My mom is one of six, my dad is one of 4.”

Williams’ mom was a respiratory therapist, her dad a professional musician. In 1974 the Ohio Players had their first golden platinum album, and the band began to tour and release albums. Her mom quit her job to stay home with Williams (and eventually her sister when Anji was born). As a family they traveled with the band.

Williams said she was a “precocious” child. “I did ballet, tap, jazz, piano, and drums. I once asked, ‘Why did I do so much?’ and my mom was like, ‘I would pay any amount of money to keep you busy. Whatever class I could I signed you up for.’ I loved it all. I was always performing. I loved telling stories any kind of way.” Williams laughed. “There was always a show at the end of any birthday party.”

She isn’t sure where her love of performing began—perhaps watching her dad perform. “My upbringing was completely normal because we treated it as normal, but according to everyone else it was totally crazy. Dad would have gigs at the weekend, and so would take me out of school on Fridays. It was not unusual to do homework on the tour bus. To me that was normal. It was a glamorous life. It was bananas. I had such a cool childhood.”

A drumming prodigy, Williams found that she picked up the sticks aged 12, adding that “they were meant to be in my hands.” She had initially picked them up to get into a performing arts school whose superintendent told her she needed to play an instrument. (Williams’ daughters have also taken up the drums, much to Williams’ dad’s joy.)

Williams’ intention until her senior year was to become a musician, with the dream of playing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1988, aged 16, she missed her prom to play at Carnegie Hall—“the only time I have played Carnegie Hall, an incredible experience.” That was also her first time in New York City. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m home.’ I always felt like a fish out of water in Dayton. I loved being from there, but I was like ‘I’m outta here.’

“When I got to New York I was like, ‘These are my people.’ It was everything: the pace, the energy, the creativity everywhere, the amazing graffiti art. It was electric. People dancing on the streets.” She laughed. “I was so happy. New York was exactly as Fame had shown it to be! People looked as if they were out of fashion magazines—not expensive, but funky and interesting. They had a vibe. I had never seen so many cultures in such a small space.”

It was playing Dorothy in a production of The Wiz when she was a senior that “blew up my life.” She had played in the orchestra pit for a number of musical productions. But now, taking center stage, the young musician changed course. “It was the first show that hit everything I loved. I had grown up dancing, and in that show I really got to dance. I got to sing, mostly beautiful solos, and really got to act—and I found the same camaraderie that I had, until that point, had with only musicians, with the rest of the cast.”

Next, Williams knew she had to have “an awkward conversation” with her parents about her change of career direction. They welcomed it, her dad said she could go ahead, but should take a year off to earn money, and research the best acting course and college to enroll in, so she would be absolutely prepared. “And that’s what happened,” William said, smiling. When she told one teacher she was taking a gap year, that teacher responded, disappointed, “I really thought you were going to be something.” Williams paused, and smiled in the retelling. “I thought, ‘I’m going to show you.’”

Williams attended AMDA College of Performing Arts on a scholarship, which was “life-changing”; from the time she graduated, she worked—on tours and Broadway shows that included 42nd Street, Porgy and Bess, A Chorus Line, Rent, and Aida. It was doing Rent that she met its director Greif, becoming both dance captain and then leaving the cast to become the associate choreographer, helping mount seven productions of Jonathan Larson’s iconic musical.

The performer, director, and choreographer Baayork Lee became an important mentor, “the first woman of color I ever encountered as a creative force. She is just a wealth of Broadway knowledge.” York told her what being “a swing” involved when Williams did that in Tommy, and how to be a dance captain, predicting correctly she would mount many productions of it and that she couldn’t hang out with the cast in the same way as she did while a member of it after she became an associate choreographer. Lee next encouraged Williams to reconceive Porgy and Bess. “She saw something in me I hadn’t yet seen in myself—that I was a director.”

After these offstage stints, Williams returned to performing, and found herself to be voiceless and ignored again. “I thought I wanted to be back on stage, but something in me wanted to have my voice in a different kind of way.”

Performing in Aida for four years as Nehebka, her voice teacher (two-time Tony Award winner Victoria Clark) told her, when Williams was having physical problems with her voice, that her real issue was that she had psychologically lost her voice. “And in that moment I realized I wanted to be director,” Williams said—ironic-meets-karmic, as years later she would reimagine Elton John and Tim Rice’s musical—based on Verdi’s opera—and is looking forward to bringing her production to Broadway.

Williams first directed a workshop of a show called Peace; her friend Stephen Oremus then said she should tell people she was a director, and that they would believe her. And so it came to be.

That she was a performer herself is an important added quiver to her directorial bow, Williams said, because “I’m always thinking about the actors’ experiences. I remember going to auditions as an actor, prepared, dressed, warmed-up, and being resentful that the director hadn’t even had the decency to brush their hair. I wanted to say, ‘Not only am I here today saying I want to be part of your production, aren’t you also meeting me to say you want to lead me?’ The hardest thing to do is to walk into a room, bare your soul, and say, ‘Like me, pick me, I want to be part of this, trust me.’ Now, as a director, I think very deeply about the status of the actors, and them having a voice in the process, so they don’t feel like puppets—but rather true participants and collaborators.”

She and Greif had become close working on Rent, and stayed friends. “He was one of my first visitors after my first daughter was born. Michael has children, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, you’ve done this before. Feed her. I need a shower.’”

Greif called Williams in 2020 to ask her to co-direct The Notebook. “I read it, and it hit my heart in a big way. Michael was incredibly honest, personal, and profound when he spoke to me about why he wanted me to co-direct, and create something unique together, thinking about all of the bodies on stage way and how we were going to craft something with representation on all sides. I’m attracted to stories where I believe I can bring something unique to them as a Black woman, and how Black women on stage can make us see those stories in a new way.”


‘I fight for whatever issues hit my heart’

Williams’ commitment to social justice began early. “I was always aware of my Blackness,” she said. “It was clear the world was going to see me differently. I was always outspoken, and good for giving a speech at a school board meeting about whatever was not right. I went to a number of protests against apartheid. My parents would be like, ‘Where are you going?’ I would be like, ‘I’m making a sign!’ ‘OK, see you for dinner!’ they’d say.

“I’ve always been very passionate about social justice in general. It was one of the good things I got from church as a child—knowing I had any kind of autonomy as young Black girl because people in the past had spoken out for that be possible. I didn’t think ‘Good for me, thanks everybody.’ I had to continue that work myself because that work hadn’t finished. I say same to my kids now about what it means to be an upstander— ‘If you see something someone getting picked on, you go stand right next to them. Don’t let them stand by themselves.’”

When marriage equality was being fought for, Williams campaigned hard for it, because—being married to a white man herself—“had it not been for Loving v. Virginia, my marriage to my husband wouldn’t be legal. People who didn’t look like me fought for me to be able to marry the person I love. I knew I couldn’t sit back, and say, ‘I’m not going to fight for you to be able to marry the person you love.’ I fight for whatever issues hit my heart—whether it’s a Black issue or an issue that doesn’t directly affect me I understand how unbelievably connected we are and that it us up to the majority—in whatever majority seat you happen to be in at that moment—to be fighting for the minority, to help ensure that laws and legislation that guarantee their equality to pass. It is the responsibility of the majority to help do that.”

Have Williams and Scott ever faced any prejudice as an interracial couple?

“We’ve been married for 17 years. After living in Brooklyn, we moved out of the city to Long Island in 2020. That was a culture shock for sure. As I joke, although it’s true, one third of the Black population of my kids’ school came out of my body. That was shocking for my daughters. I remember going to first school board meeting, and they were talking about banning books. I was like, ‘What year did I just walk into?’”

“I think I have the greatest husband on the planet, he is the perfect partner,” Williams said of Scott, who owns a post-production house for film and television. He has taken on all familial and domestic responsibilities while Williams has been traveling nationally and internationally, working on Aida and The Notebook. “He says to me all the time, ‘We were prepared for this moment. We knew it was going to happen. Relish it. This is your moment to shine. I’m honored to be able to support you. Have fun.’ I know so many people don’t have that supportive partners. It’s not lost on me how unusual he is, in the love and support he provides to me.”

The pair met on a blind date, after Williams said to a group of fellow directors over vodka shots, “‘If you guys know a great, straight guy in his late 30s, early 40s send him my way.’ One of them said, hand to god, ‘My boyfriend’s best friend’s brother’s straight. You should meet him.’ And that was Scott. We met. It was such a slow burn. We did click, we have the same, very dry sense of humor. We made, and make, each other laugh a lot. I thought, ‘That was an awesome date, is he gay? Is he really straight? Then he kissed me at the end of the night, and I was like, ‘Ha, that was a very straight kiss.’

“It was such a great date, and the more we hung out, the more natural it felt, and the more I realized that this was the person I would want to be with on the worst day of my life. Six months in, I thought, ‘This is it.’ And then I married him! And that was 17 years ago. He’s wonderful.” Williams roared with laughter.

Williams loves the surrounding nature of their Long Island home, after 30 years of living in New York. “The Ohio girl in me came out,” she said, laughing. I was like, ‘I want to plant a garden. I want to swim in the ocean.’ I really like it.”

“It’s tricky,” she added of the cultural shift the move had wrought. “There was a real moment where I felt incredible guilt that I brought my kids into a place where they are unbelievably othered. They’re Black, biracial, Jewish, Christian… they’re all the things. And yet they have found their friends, and their friends are all incredible allies to each other, and for that I am enormously proud and happy. Their life is harder. I do secretly hope they go to an HBCU (Historically Black College and Universities), so they have the ability to feel normalized every day because I feel that will do so much for their self-esteem, and to just not have to wear that armor they wear now every single day of their lives.”


‘The Wiz is a celebration of Black excellence’

When it came to The Wiz, Williams hadn’t read the script in a long time, and began to consider what she would like to do differently in 2024 compared to 1974.

“I wanted to know where Dorothy’s parents are. When you see a Black woman raised by someone else, the assumption is of a deadbeat dad. I wanted to take that implicit bias, and create a sense of belonging and connection for her, and also for the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man to show they have family, they’re entrenched, and connections beyond what we see. That narrative is important to me for Black people today.

“Also, I didn’t want Dorothy to be 9 years old. I wanted her to be a formidable teenager, and to look at what happens when a Black girl is not like other Black girls—an urban girl dropped into a very rural environment, when her Blackness isn’t enough to belong—how, even within her own community, she is othered. What I love about Dorothy is that it’s the story of my kids—dropped into a place where they feel othered, and then finding strength in finding their own tribes of little weirdos, who love and appreciate you for who you are.”

The Tin Man singing “What Would I Do If I Could Feel” hits more acutely after Floyd’s 2020 killing, Williams said in terms of “the vulnerability about wanting to feel connected. I want that more than anything. It’s a beautiful bit of humanity. It’s extraordinary how those lyrics hit me.”

Williams also didn’t want the Wiz himself to dispense his special gifts of powers to the characters at the end; the journey they have been on means, for her, that the valuable qualities they have acquired have been through their own challenges and friendship.

For Williams, the power of presenting the show in 2024, especially for Black audiences, is that “it is a celebration of Black excellence, revealing how Black culture has affected more culture more widely, in music, fashion, choreography, and storytelling. That makes the show literally timeless.”

Williams, who is also working on a stage adaptation of Hidden Figures, is also looking forward to bringing her production of Aida (presently being performed in the Netherlands) “home” to Broadway. “The show means so much to me. It’s important for me that it shows Aida’s journey—what she wants, and what her challenges are. Historically, it was also important for me to show the autonomy Nubian and Egyptian women had at that time—they were warriors and musicians, prior to the religious subjugation they endured later— and the indentured, rather than chattel, slavery that was current at that time. None of this changes the central love story, but it does challenge our implicit biases.”

Williams’ determination to inform her own daughters about Black history informed her writing of her book, Your Legacy: A Bold Reclaiming of Our Enslaved History, a picture book that illustrated a Black history of empowerment and accomplishment to show that Black identities aren’t solely defined by the history of slavery. Another book, due out in May, is intended as a precursor to Your Legacy, with Williams planning another book about “being a woman navigating motherhood and being in this business,” and how to craft a healthy partnership that “allows you to thrive inside this journey.”

“It was really interesting having kids at 39 and 40,” Williams said. “There are pros and cons. I felt like I knew more about life, but it’s really been tricky navigating two very big things—aging parents and teenage kids—at the same time. I never feel like, ‘I’ve got this,’ but I do feel like all the problems are not mine alone to solve. Whatever and whoever needs me at that moment will win. Real life is going to happen, and we all need to give ourselves the grace to accept we will make mistakes, then figure it out.”

“I don’t know what will happen next, but I’m excited for it,” Williams said of her professional future. “I never imagined I’d be here, but I never imagined it wouldn’t happen. I don’t know what is next, but I know whatever it is I am being prepared for it now. That’s exciting and wonderful, and I’m open to it all—and not foolish enough to plan anything. One thing is important to me. I only want to work with kind humans. In this business I don’t have the bandwidth to be miserable, no matter how talented you are.”

Would Williams ever perform again herself? A laugh, then an exclaimed, “NEVER. EVER. EVER. What’s so funny is I can’t even wrap my head around that I ever even did it. I love this kind of storytelling that I do now.” And if she’s successful, Mrs. Kleinberger will have them all bawling in the aisles.